Liar, liar: From fibs to whoppers, has lying become a way of life?
He traveled a lot for business. Curious thing, though — his bags never had any airline tags. He told his wife of 30 years that he ripped them off at the airport and threw them away before coming home.
“Nobody does that,” says private investigator Ali Wirsche, who discovered the man was living a secret life with another woman in Calgary. “The double life is very confusing,” says Wirsche. “They tell so many lies they can’t remember their lies anymore.” Are we lying more these days or does it just seem that way? And does it really matter either way?
Spouses cheat, job seekers pad their resumes, Internet daters inflate their profiles, shoppers taste grapes in the grocery store and flatterers say, “Gee, that shirt looks really good on you.” Those lies can range from harmless fibs to whoppers that destroy marriages, take down corporations, empty retirement funds or put Martha in the big house.
In a 10-minute conversation, 60 per cent of people will tell an average of three lies or untruths, U.S. psychology researcher Robert Feldman found.
“It’s hard not to feel there’s a lot of lying going on,” says author Ralph Keyes, whose book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life (St. Martin’s Press) hits shelves this October.
Keyes began his search for the truth behind lying about three years ago; he felt the increase of electronic media such as the Internet, e-mail and 24-hour cable, was leading to a flood of deception.
“What we may think of as an epidemic of lies may actually be an epidemic of the discovery of old lies,” Keyes says. “Lies are like cockroaches. You see one, you’re bound to see more.”
Instead of lying, we shave the truth, we spin, we contextualize, we’re lenient with honesty, we’re economical with the truth or we just exercise bad judgment, says Keyes, rattling off his favourite list of euphemisms for lying.
So why are we fudging the truth so freely?
Modern life with its increased mobility, anonymity and inherent loss of community is at the root, Keyes surmises. The Internet is also to blame, but while the anonymity of e- mail and the Web encourages consequence-free dishonesty, that same modern tool can out liars much easier, Keyes says from his base in Yellow Springs, Ohio, near Dayton.
One Google search and a past whopper can easily be revealed. But that still doesn’t deter people because “recreational lying” — weaving a tale and getting away with it — can be “a lot more entertaining than telling the truth,” says Keyes. “The problem today is not that we tell lies, it is that we tell lies promiscuously and without thinking about it,” he says. “There’s a casualness of today’s lies. Deception is a way of life.”
That way of life can also bring rewards, as evinced in popular culture. New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired for faking stories from his apartment in Brooklyn. The lies initially made him a star in a highly competitive environment; after he was exposed, his story earned him a juicy book deal, although Burning Down My Master’s House tanked in sales. He’s not the only writer recently caught fabricating stories: among them are The Boston Globe’s Patricia Smith, National Post’s Brad Evenson, USA Today’s Jack Kelley and the New Republic’s Stephen Glass, who turned his mendacious misadventures into a bestselling book and movie, The Fabulist. Even Alberta Premier Ralph Klein was accused of plagiarizing from the Internet for a university term paper earlier this year. He was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Publicly unearthing lies and outing the liars has become its own money-making industry. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is a two-hour-plus assault on George W. Bush’s administration and the path to war post-Sept. 11. The film — which systematically attacks the U.S. president’s personal motivations for the Iraq war, decision by decision — made $100 million US in its first six weeks of release in the States and won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Former Saturday Night Live writer and performer, satirist and radio show host Al Franken’s latest book, Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them, takes on what he calls a “liberal media bias myth,” deconstructing right-wing arguments and attacks on Democrats. The book is a bestseller.
Lying is not just for the famous and the infamous. “Lying is extremely pervasive and it’s something we see a lot of in everyday conversation,” says Feldman, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “And we’re not very good at determining when people are lying to us or not.” The expert on lying has discovered that liars will blink their eyes more, could break into a sweat, fidget, look around and break eye contact. Those same cues, however, are seen when people are nervous or anxious for a host of other reasons.
Feldman does clear up one misconception about liars. Both sexes lie about the same amount, but for different reasons, he discovered. Women will lie more often to spare feelings or protect others, while men lie to pump themselves up, Feldman says. His latest research looks at the effect and response of being lied to. Preliminary results have found the victim begins returning the lies to the victimizer after they discover the deception.
Without question lying, has consequences. Just ask Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. His Vietnam service record has been relentlessly attacked in the past few weeks by a group of veterans. While the claims have been discredited, damage has been done. A Los Angeles Times survey published Thursday shows Bush leading the presidential race, capturing 49 per cent of registered voters compared to Kerry’s 46 per cent, marking the first time the U.S. president has pulled ahead of his competitor this year, the newspaper reported.
In private life, people lie to protect others, spare feelings, inflate their self-worth, pursue their own self-interests and outright deceive for deception’s sake. The truth can be bent, but not broken. So when is lying OK — or is it ever? “It’s a question of morality. Society makes these judgments,” Feldman says.
Some lies are told for self-preservation, however misguided it may be. Athletes, such as the Greek Olympic track stars who made headlines last week, might lie about using performance-enhancing drugs. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton clung to power by claiming that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Even Martha Stewart, who has been convicted of lying about a stock trade to investigators at the Securities and Exchange Commission, still claims she’s done nothing wrong.
Others lie out of a need for self aggrandizement. Former Lethbridge alderman Dar Heatherington — who went missing on a political junket in Montana last year and was found days later walking in Las Vegas dazed and confused — was found guilty of making up her imaginary stalker. She will be sentenced in September.
“People use lying to justify promoting their own self interests,” says Calgary ethicist Sinclair MacRae. In business, Enron executives fudged finances. The company and its retirement fund imploded and thousands lost their jobs. In Canada, Calgary exploration company Bre-X told investors there was gold in them thar hills, and lots of it. There wasn’t. Investors lost their shirts as the stock price plummeted.
Lying is not one act, with clearly defined boundaries, MacRae says. It can range from posturing to deception to telling outright falsehoods to letting people draw false inferences from words or actions. “There’s nothing in the acts that make one better or worse than the other,” says the Mount Royal College professor. “Ultimately, it depends on the harm done.”
Some of the most damaging lies involve adultery, which is why Calgary P.I. Wirsche and her partner Marnie Milot are never short of clients. In the business for 10 years, the Calgarians have heard every lie. With so many falsehoods flying, Wirsche and Milot came up with a Top 20 Lies List. (The list will appear in their latest book, Sex, Lies and P.I.s, to be published in Spring 2005.)
Among the whoppers most commonly told:
– I found that hotel key on the sidewalk and I haven’t had time to return it.
– I bought that contraceptive foam by mistake.
– That condom wrapper in my car blew in the open window.
– It must have dropped out of the mechanic’s pocket.
– That blond hair must be the mechanic’s.
“Those poor mechanics,” Wirsche says.
Even with all the lying going on around her, the investigator warns would-be cheaters against embarking on relationships built on lies. “You should watch your back, because we could be watching you.”